Christmas in Connecticut – 1959

1959

Fidel Castro first assumed the office of Prime Minister of Cuba. Alaska and Hawaii became the 49th and 50th states. Able & Baker – two monkeys – took a 15-minute ride into space and returned safely. Chevrolet introduced the El Camino pickup, ushering in a new use for light-duty trucks – personal transportation. A television advertising campaign by Hertz first offered to “Put you in the Driver’s Seat.” Vice President Nixon and Nikita Khrushchev argued over the merits of capitalism vs. communism at the American National Exhibition during a trade show in Moscow while standing in a model kitchen, an encounter that became known as the “Kitchen Debate.” America was introduced to the original group of NASA astronauts known as Mercury Seven. And the Twilight Zone debuted on television with far less bizarre storylines than the real events of 2020!

In the autumn of 1959, tossing the kids into the back of your new 1960 Chevy El Camino pickup was a perfectly acceptable way to take them for a ride.

Toys from Christmas Past

Like most 11-year old’s, I had likely begun my Christmas wish list about the same time my dad was making his 1959 New Year’s resolution to give up smoking. This list probably changed from time to time that year as my taste in toys began to lean towards more sophisticated things such as an expensive set of Lionel trains. By late November, I was lobbying hard for a complete set with a Santa Fe diesel engine pulling vista dome passenger and observation cars behind it. I really wanted the “O” gauge version so that it would closely match the size of my collection of metal English made Dinky Toy cars. I’m sure the “hints” aimed at my parents closely matched today’s volume of Geico ads on television and I’m all but certain they appreciated that they wouldn’t have to guess what I wanted that year.

Like most male children born after WWII, I had already been the recipient of some of A.C. Gilbert’s instructive, yet potentially deadly, toy sets. Luckily, I had missed out on possibly one of the most dangerous toy sets ever manufactured and sold: The A.C. Gilbert Atomic Energy Lab. It was sold in 1951 and 1952, but its extremely high price – $49.50, kept it out of the hands of all but the wealthiest of juvenile Emilio Largo’s. Dubiously deemed safe by its maker, the set included four actual samples of uranium ore. Of course. they came with labels warning against removing them from their glass containers, so what could possibly go wrong in the hands of a curious 12-year boy?

The A. C. Gilbert Atomic Energy Lab was only sold for two years. Seen in the upper left corner are the 4 samples of real uranium ore, all safely sealed in glass bottles. Just the kind of educational toy every 12-year old boy should keep in his bedroom.

Then we had the Gilbert sets I had already received on previous Christmases. The world-renowned Erector Set that every lad just had to have was one of them. Depending on how much mom and dad were willing to shell out, an erector set could be used to build anything from a simple model trestle bridge to a life-sized replica of the steel superstructure of the Empire State Building. Any kid who ever owned one of these sets – and that would be every boy child born in the United States between 1946 and 1960 – can recall the metallic smell the parts left on his hands. That smell was resistant to ordinary soap and water and had an equivalent atomic half-life of about twelve. The nuts that secured the tiny bolts usually came with more than a few razor sharp metal spurs, causing finger wounds ranging from minor lacerations to full-blown gushers. The sets probably should have come from the factory with first-aid kits as part of the package.

Of course, superficial wounds inflicted by the erector set could be easily treated with the over-the-counter Mercurochrome that every family kept in their bathroom medicine cabinet. If the name of that product gives you pause, you are obviously paying attention. Mercurochrome did indeed include mercury as one of the main ingredients. Dubiously deemed safe by its maker, it was finally removed from US drug stores shelves in 1998.

Gilbert’s erector sets were serious “toys” for serious boys. Designed for seven to twelve year-old boys with at least two years of university level engineering experience under their little belts, the more expensive units were chock full of mini-girders, assorted gears, and even an electric motor. And it wasn’t one of today’s puny DC motors powered by a couple of AA batteries either. Nope, this one was an all-metal, reversible, multiple-speed, 110 Volt model that ran on AC house current. An electric motor encased in an all metal housing that connected with an all metal superstructure… what could possibly go wrong? Mate that motor with some of the supplied gears and a pulley and you had a winch capable of pulling your kid brother out of the quick sand down by the swamp behind your house. Luckily, these babies were reversible, so that when you or your little friends got their fingers jammed in the mechanism, the gears could be switched into reverse and the fingers extracted before they were completely severed. A little Mercurochrome and a couple of band-aids and you were good to go!

The Number 8 1/2 All-Electric Erector set was all a kid needed to construct his very own Ferris wheel. Check out the 110 Volt power plant in the bottom left compartment that was included in this set.

The Ferris wheel set shown above was packed with over 250 parts and in excess of 350 fasteners (nuts & bolts). Interestingly, it lacked the usual step-by-step instructions one would assume might accompany such an elaborate set-up. It did however come with some fairly detailed drawings – hence the need for a couple of years of engineering courses.

Typical young lad from the 1950’s assembling an erector set. You’ll note the dress shirt and tie – normal attire for any boy in 1959. Any 10-year old who could assemble something this complicated simply by studying the drawings Gilbert supplied would have easily learned to tie that Windsor knot in his necktie by the time he was 3.

The other wonderful set in my collection of “Things you should never allow your child to get near,” was the A.C. Gilbert Chemistry Set. Chemicals such as potassium nitrate, sodium ferrocyanide, and calcium hypochlorite came in these sets. Mixing them with other chemicals contained in the same set could get you gun powder, cyanide, or chlorine gas. Dubiously deemed safe by its maker, the set came with instructions and suggestions of adult supervision. Sounded reasonable enough.

Late 1950’s A.C. Gilbert Chemistry Set. Another “Safety- First” educational toy set from the “Purveyor of Doom & Destruction” collection manufactured by Gilbert.

Beginning the Christmas season

Today we refer to the day after Thanksgiving as “Black Friday.” In 1959, the Friday after Thanksgiving was indeed black until around 6:00 AM and then again shorty before 5:00 PM. There were no “door buster” deals, no shoppers lining up at midnight outside of Read’s or Howland’s, Bridgeport’s two largest retail stores. Zemel’s wasn’t pushing 70-inch flatscreen TV’s. Lexus wasn’t beginning it’s “December to Remember” car sale – because the brand didn’t yet exist. There was no mall in Trumbull, it would be another 5 years until that facility would open as the first modern enclosed mall in Connecticut in 1964.

However, Friday, November 27, 1959 was the official start of the Christmas shopping season, but it was ushered in with a mere 4 pages of additional advertising in that day’s Bridgeport Post than had been published on the previous Friday when not a single ad had mentioned the impending Christmas shopping season. The biggest difference on Friday the 27th was the change in shopping hours. They went from 9:15 AM each morning until 9:30 PM nightly until Christmas in the larger stores such as Read’s, and until 9:00 PM in most of the other outlets. The normal shopping hours in Bridgeport had ended at 5:30 PM each day except for Thursdays when most downtown stores remained open until 9:00 PM. Saturday’s edition of the Post had absolutely no retail advertising, and Sunday’s edition had ads that mentioned shopping again on Monday. In 1959, virtually every retail store in Connecticut was closed on Sunday.

With the average price of gasoline in 1959 being a mere $.26 per gallon, fuel economy wasn’t a particularly important selling point when it came to buying a new car. But suddenly, there was an explosion in the purchases of smaller cars from Europe. The real appeal of these smaller vehicles was a by-product of the growing demand to fill the needs of the “two car family,” a relatively new phenomenon in suburban America. Volkswagen sales were booming as towns like Easton grew in population. More workers began commuting longer distances and the increasing need for better public transportation soon took a backseat in government spending as more and more dollars were needed to keep up with the growing number of baby boomers needing to be educated. By the early 1960’s suburban families with only one automobile were becoming rare.

My dad had bought my mother a new French built Simca Elysee earlier in the year. In 1959, car buying was an all male event. Luckily my father considered my mother’s automotive needs and chose the Simca, as his first choice would have surely been a little less practical Jaguar XK-150. On the Friday after Thanksgiving, he drove the car into Bridgeport to have a set of snow tires mounted. There was no such thing as an all-wheel drive automobile in those days. Ditto for front-wheel drive. There were no SUV’s, unless you considered the cumbersome, clunky hulk-like International Harvester Travelall – literally a pickup truck with a station wagon style body – to be the equivalent of today’s SUV. In the winter, snow had always meant putting chains on the tires of the rear drive wheels. But with an increasing number of women drivers, by the mid-1950’s, summer tires where beginning to be replaced with cleated snow tires, eliminating the need to crawl on the ground to attach a set of chains every time it snowed.

Main Street Christmas decorations in Bridgeport. Howlands is the tall building in the foreground at the left.

Like most years, mom and I met my dad around 6:00 PM in Bridgeport for the annual lighting of the Christmas decorations strung across Main Street in front of Howland’s. Howland’s and Read’s were large multi-storied Bridgeport based department stores that rivaled the competition between Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s in Manhattan. Read’s was the taller of the two stores at five-stories plus a basement level. One of the neatest things I remember about that store was the full-service elevator, complete with a uniformed operator who would call out each floor and what was on it. Of course, the only floor I cared about back then was number Five. That was the home to Toyland and bicycles. Although for some strange reason, I also recall the third floor held the lingerie shop.

On the way back home, we were greeted by a familiar glow while driving up the Sport Hill Road. Everyone who lived in Easton in the 1950’s will recall the large star that shone every Christmas season on the cliff in front of the Whiting family home at 29 Old Sport Hill Road. Sherman Whiting owned Whiting’s TV, Radio, and Music store on Fairfield Avenue in Bridgeport and that bright-white star was an Easton Christmas landmark for many years.

It was during the first week of December when Dusty began barking at a little after 1:00 AM one morning. I could hear voices in the kitchen and knew it was my grandfather and his partner Clyde. They were just arriving after a twelve-hour drive from the family farm in Maine. Gramp’s 1941 Dodge 1-ton stake truck was piled high with Christmas trees. The trip was slow, as the interstate highway system was still a hodgepodge network of roads that were not yet completed and connected. Interstate 84 and 91 were still in their planning stages. Once the pair would have reached the Connecticut border in that old truck, the most direct route to Easton would have been on US Route 6 until they reached Newtown.

Easton claims to be the “Christmas Tree Capital of Connecticut”, but fifty years ago the only two local operations I remember growing and selling native trees were the Bridgeport Hydraulic Company and Sherwood Edwards at what is now Maple Row Farm. For several years, my Easton born grandfather and his partner at their Margreen Farms operation in Maine would harvest a couple of hundred trees and haul them to Connecticut. Al Jaffe on Judd Road would handle the distribution and sales at Chris Rudolph’s store on Stepney Road and from the carnival grounds across from the Firehouse. Al had replaced my grandfather as president of the fire company earlier in the decade and I suspect that a portion of the profits from the tree and wreath sales went to the volunteers. My grandmother and Clyde’s wife Connie had spent most of November making the wreathes that were sold alongside of the trees.

Al Jaffe of Judd Road distributed Maine grown Christmas trees and wreaths from my grandfather’s farm. This wreath tag is from 1959.

Decembers seemed much colder in the 1950’s than they are today. As kids, we couldn’t wait for the area ponds to freeze over and the ice grow thick enough to skate on. We always had the smallest kid in the neighborhood venture out onto the ice while the rest of us stood silently by waiting to hear if it would crack. We generally gave it two or three additional nights after no visible or audible signs of cracking before we deemed it safe enough to skate on. Once the ice was set, we played hockey every day until the January thaw brought rains that made the ice uneven.

1959 was the first year that Joel Barlow was open. That posed problems for Easton’s independent bus drivers. For the most part, these men owned the buses they drove. They then had to cover two routes each morning and afternoon. One trip to Barlow and the other to Samuel Staples. Helen Keller Middle School didn’t yet exist. Prior to that, school was seldom cancelled due to an impending snowstorm. The drivers simply installed their chains and began their route. If it took an hour or more to get us to school, so be it. Broken chains were common, smashing loudly against the wheel wells, making riding in the rear of the bus almost deafening. On more than one occasion with the chains broken and useless, I can remember walking the final mile of our homeward journey in the raging snow after our bus driver would simply stop at the base of an unplowed hill and tell us that we were on own. With two routes to cover, time of travel became more critical. Suddenly there was the distinct possibility that schools might be cancelled if it was snowing by 5:00 AM. Every kid in town was then up early listening intently to WICC for those wonderful words – “No School in Easton.”

Bus drivers that I can remember from back then are Fred Candee, Art Driesen, Skip Toth and his two employees – the aging Tucker Twins. Mr. Candee kept his bus at his farm on Church Road where he had built a special garage just to house his school bus on the far side of his home. The building was a full thirty feet deep. That garage still stands and now has two overhead doors where there was once just one that was wide and high enough to accommodate Mr. Candee’s school bus.

A Christmas Goose

That Christmas, it would be just our little family that mom would have to cook for. My mother was a dutiful 1950’s wife who stayed home to keep a nice house and a beautiful set of gardens. She did volunteer work for just about every organization under the sun and was happy to do so. But the one thing my dear mother did not enjoy about being a “June Cleaver” mom was cooking.

That year, my father made a special request. A goose for Christmas dinner, just like his own mother had prepared for his family when he was a boy. Okay, a goose rather than the traditional turkey or ham that my mother was used to preparing. It would be something different, but how hard could it be to roast a goose rather than a turkey? Geese and turkeys are both large birds, so cooking them must be about the same. At least that’s what my mother must have assumed.

My mother visited Mr. Kaye’s poultry farm on Stepney Road about a week before Christmas. I have no idea if she mentioned that she knew absolutely nothing about roasting a goose, but I’m fairly certain that he never explained to her that a cooking goose produces an abundant amount of fat renderings while in the pan.

When Christmas morning came, mom was up early preparing the stuffing for the bird. The first issue became obvious when she began to stuff the goose. The cavity was only about half as large as a similar sized turkey, so there was a good deal of stuffing left over after the bird was full. Mom put the goose in the oven and then joined dad, Dusty, and me as we began opening our gifts. She perhaps waited a little too long before she initially went to check on her bird. It was already floating in grease.

After removing nearly a full quart of goose grease from the pan, she returned to the living room with a worried look on her face.

“Do you remember if the goose your mother used to cook put out an awful lot of grease while it was roasting?” she asked of my father.

“I just remembered how delicious it tasted when she served it,” was his less than helpful response.

Twenty more minutes passed before my mother returned to the kitchen to check on the goose again. When she returned, she didn’t look to be very much in the Christmas mood.

“There was another two inches of grease floating on top of the water in the roasting pan…”

And so it went. In all, that 12-pound goose produced about 3 quarts of fatty grease by the time it came out of the oven. As my father carved the bird, more grease oozed out from between the skin and the meat. The breast meat was darker in color than any turkey I had ever seen, but as I would later learn, that was normal. What I would also learn was that a goose needs to have its skin poked dozens of times in order to allow the fat to seep out and cook on the outside of the bird to make the skin brown and crispy. My mother’s recipe book hadn’t mentioned that seemingly important detail, so while the meat itself was likely lean, the fat that had been trapped between the meat and the skin made for a slip ‘n slide dinner when it hit the plate. All in all, it wasn’t the delicious goose dinner my father had fond memories of his mother having made for him as a child.

Needless to say, that was my poor mother’s first, last, and only attempt at cooking a goose. After that it was the traditional ham or turkey served on Christmas Day at our house.

I got my trains that year. They were “HO” gauge rather than the traditional “O”, but my father had gone all out…more like totally carried away with his own youthful enthusiasm. He had purchased a complete layout with two full sets of train cars and engines, as well as about a dozen buildings he had assembled from kits and had set in place on Christmas morning.

Evidently, my parents picked up on one of my 1,100 hints that year and bought me the HO version of this Lionel Santa Fe train set.

That was my last big toy year. After that, gifts leaned more towards clothes, books, and sporting gear. But I still have those trains even if the layout and all those little buildings my dad made for me are long gone. I guess some of us never outgrow our favorite toys.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays everyone!

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